Rita Azevedo reviews The Paper Man at the Soho Theatre.
The story of Matthias Sindelar, the Paper Man, an Austrian footballer from the 1930s, is just another one among many that focuses on the heroic accomplishments of a sports person. Sindelar was Austria’s star player who stood up to the Nazis who had occupied his home country. The Paper Man, which ran at the Soho Theatre, prompts us to question whether his is an important story to tell nowadays. Sindelar’s story becomes a starting point from which the cast discusses topics ranging from growing up in Croydon to a song paying homage to England women’s star scorer Lily Parr, by way of tales of Nazi-occupied Vienna at a time when Sindelar was at the height of his career.
The roles of creator, actor, and audience are redefined throughout the play. The cast’s personal experiences are shared with the audience in between ongoing ‘rehearsals’ for the play depicting Sindelar’s own story. Simpson, acting as the fictional director, cannot override the actresses’ energy and desire to share their stories. They direct the play, making their voices heard over the story of another dead white male, which is not needed, as they claim. Simpson’s own rationale for casting the show, a crisis over the role football plays in life, soon leads to scenes detailing how the process of putting on the show took place.
At first, the juxtaposition of these two worlds, the play within a play and the rehearsals for it, is jarring for an unsuspecting audience. Over time, it becomes clear that the women in the cast (Jess Mabel Jones, Vera Chok, Keziah Joseph, and sound designer Adrienne Quartly), are trying to expose the theme of power. Their determination to share their own stories, alongside snippets of Sindelar’s, prompts questions of whose stories are worth sharing. The Paper Man guides us through different scenes, settings, and times, while holding up a mirror to society using the mediums of dance, comedy, and improvisation along the way.
The approximate running time is given as being an hour and a half but the interludes and moments of audience participation can make this vary night by night. Towards the end all four women sit on stage while asking audience members to select one of 36 questions (the 36 questions that can allegedly make you fall in love with someone) for any particular cast member. In response to a question dealing with the fear of the future, Keziah launches into a long train of thought only to finish by exclaiming, “I’m getting too in my own head”. By this point, it requires far less work to get the crowd to warm to their quirky approach.
Although initially I was taken aback by the unusual approach behind the staging of The Paper Man, while leaving the theatre I found myself hoping to find more productions that allow for individual stories and spontaneity to take precedence over structure.